Florida basketball: It's not quite time to panic over Todd Golden, but the questions are growing louder
Florida lost to Mississippi State 69-68 in overtime Thursday at the SEC Tournament, failing to advance to Friday for the second consecutive season.
Florida fans are growing too accustomed to SEC Tournament heartbreak over the past 5 seasons, as Florida lost at the buzzer to eventual Final Four squad Auburn 5 seasons ago, fell to Texas A&M in overtime in Tampa last season, and managed to fumble away a tremendous comeback in the final seconds against Mississippi State on Thursday afternoon in Nashville.
Florida fans could deal with SEC Tournament heartbreak when they knew their name would be called on Selection Sunday, as was the case in all but 1 of the final 6 seasons under Mike White. What is harder is when all that is left is the NIT or a long offseason filled with “what ifs” and “what could have beens.” The past 2 years have been too filled with the latter — things too often reserved for programs in purgatory.
Florida has been to the mountaintop.
The last program to win back-to-back national championships and the only school to win a national title in football and basketball this century, the Gators know they can win at the highest level in basketball. They’ve done it. In fact, there’s a reasonable argument that the current rise of SEC basketball is directly traceable to Florida’s emergence as a national power. If that seems fanciful, don’t take my word for it, trust Greg Sankey. The SEC commissioner had this to say just 7 years ago, as he pushed SEC programs to schedule tougher and do more to compete in college hoops.
“We know as a league that we can be competitive. We have the passionate fans, rich recruiting bases, administrative support. We’ve also seen schools other than Kentucky do it, whether it was Arkansas when they joined the league or Florida. We’ve seen Florida sustain their success too, which demonstrated you don’t have to choose,” Sankey told assembled media in 2016.
“We never viewed football, or being a “football school,” as an impediment,” Donovan recalled in 2020. “It was useful. We recruited to it. We sent kids to football games on visits. We encouraged them to understand that it takes a special type of kid to succeed here, one who might not need or require the spotlight, but that they’ve have a huge platform and fan base and chance to succeed too, if they put in the work. We had great players who understood and embraced that opportunity.
“By the time we were done, we didn’t just have a tremendous home environment– we played in every possible hostile environment, the type that prepares kids best for the next level. At Kentucky, they are used to playing road games in sold out arenas, getting everyone’s best shot. We became the ‘other’ team that sold out every arena. We knew people were going to give us their best. That was something we embraced. The pursuit of excellence associated with that is a privilege.”
The pursuit of excellence as a program helped Florida win more games than any SEC program other than Kentucky since the advent of the 3-point shot, and the 3rd-most in the league (Kentucky, Tennessee) since the SEC integrated fully in 1973. Florida has also suffered the fewest losing seasons, along with Kentucky (1) of any SEC program this century. Florida is, as Bruce Pearl said earlier this year, “basketball royalty in the SEC.”
It’s Florida’s rich tradition over the past 30 years that makes a 16-16 campaign like this one tough to swallow. It was even harder to swallow Thursday. Florida had the game won, but blew an assignment on help defense to allow Tolu Smith, the one player Mississippi State had who could torment and take down Florida, win the game late. Smith finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds. Florida went home.
Helping off Smith here was an Indiana Jones “you chose…poorly!” Moment
— Florida Basketball Hour (@FloridaBBHour) March 9, 2023
After the loss, first-year head coach Todd Golden praised Florida’s competitiveness.
“It was a tough loss, but I’m proud of how our guys battled. Down 14 with 6:30 to play in the first half. Obviously that could have gone one of two ways, and we had that thing to where we had a 3-point lead with 13 minutes to play. We had two chances to win in regulation, and then in overtime to win the game. Came up a little short.”
The “came up a little short” argument is fine for a program like Florida in the semifinals, or even in a quarterfinal against a top seed. This, on the other hand, was a winnable 8-vs.-9 game against a desperate bubble team. These are the games Florida used to savor, squashing the bubble dreams of SEC brethren on their way to March Madness. Now, these are the games Florida can’t win.
The Gators went 4-16 this year in Quad 1 and 2 games, and 1-6 in games decided by 5 points or less. Florida fought Thursday, but for the bulk of this season, when Florida played a good team and was punched in the mouth, the Gators hit the mat. Before you write that off as unfair, consider this: Florida suffered 3 losses this year by 21 points or more. In 7 years under Mike White, Florida lost by that margin just twice.
This tumultuous campaign doesn’t mean it wasn’t time for White and Florida to part ways, but it does mean Golden, the latest young hotshot head coach hired by Florida, may and must improve. It also begs the question of why Florida seems hellbent on saving a dollar to chase the next diamond in the rough Billy Donovan-type hire when, thanks to the yeoman’s work of Lon Kruger and the court-signature work of Donovan, the Gators’ hoops program has won enough to have the pedigree to hire a proven commodity.
In the new SEC, a world where football is forever king but hoops also means dollars and winning makes it just mean more, you get what you pay for, and Florida’s approach seems as antiquated as the offense Golden and his staff ran all season, stumbling and bumbling their way to a 112th KenPom Offensive Efficiency rating, the 2nd-worst for the Gators in the KenPom era.
Golden may do better. In basketball circles, he’s respected for his analytical mind and the way he operates like a savvy CEO. But it’s hard to see a big bounce happening next season, even in the era of the transfer portal, which can be the great equalizer.
Florida will lose Colin Castleton, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a likely All-American, to the NBA. His injury was devastating, but the truth is Golden couldn’t win much with him anyway. The Gators were 13-12 and on the outside of the bubble when Castleton was injured.
Florida star freshman Riley Kugel could be enticed to return, thanks largely to NIL, but he’s streaking his way up draft boards thanks to a flashy February and March and could sign a two-way deal in the NBA even if he isn’t a first-round lock. Other players, like Kowacie Reeves and Alex Fudge, who are both immensely talented but inconsistent, and lockdown defender Niels Lane, who mysteriously didn’t play much for Golden this season, may find the transfer portal more enticing than another season in Gainesville. Will Richard is a nice piece, but there’s not much likely to return beyond that core group.
In the end, Florida just wasn’t consistent enough or good enough Thursday, which was the case all season, Castleton or no Castleton. The SEC isn’t going to get any weaker in basketball, and Florida, just 2 years removed from the league’s longest streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, appears to be falling behind.
If Golden can’t fix that quickly, Florida may need to find someone who will. The program battled too hard to hang 5 Final Four banners and become a SEC powerhouse to simply praise the way an 8th-place SEC team battled.